Did the last four years really happen? It is the question many England fans will ask themselves just four weeks out from the start of the Rugby World Cup, given that Eddie Jones’ final squad selection confounds all logic of the World Cup cycle process.
The Australian has spent the last few years talking up the importance of having experience in his squad for Japan 2019, with the Six Nations, summer tours and autumn internationals all part of the process of reaching a cap-threshold for the main event.
Which makes it all the more surprising to see him name four players in the final 31-man squad with a combined three caps – and all of them in a non-competitive warm-up test.
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Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz and Jack Singleton all made their international debuts in Sunday’s 33-19 victory over Wales – the latter as a 79th-minute replacement – while Ruaridh McConnochie is yet to play any international 15-a-side rugby following his switch from the Sevens programme last year.
With the inexperienced quartet included, out go Brad Shields, Ben Spencer and Ben Te’o through a combination of injury, ill-discipline and failing to impress during the summer training camp. Shields may yet feature as he continues his recovery from a foot injury that should see him return as the World Cup begins, while Spencer will join Dan Robson and Danny Care as potential scrum-half replacements should anything happen to Heinz or Ben Youngs. But for Te’o, you wonder if there is a way back after two breaches of discipline this year.
But there is far more to this than simply players missing out.
You have to question what the plan has been over Jones’s entire spell in charge. Former captain Dylan Hartley is a distant memory due to his ongoing knee injury, while stalwarts of the squad throughout the last four years in Care, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and more recently Te’o and Shields have been omitted.
England’s starting XV appears to select itself, with Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade the preferred centre partnership and Jones keen to deploy both Sam Underhill and Tom Curry in the same back-row. But where is the experience beyond that? The travelling party currently have 1,007 international caps to their name, an average of 32 caps per player. To put that into comparison, the All Blacks went to the 2015 World Cup with 1,484 caps between them at an average of 47.8 caps per player, a sizeable experience advantage on what England will harbour next month.
The Independent understands that Jones was concerned about the lack of experience heading into the summer training camps, but the rookies have impressed when it mattered most compared to their more seasoned rivals.
But it cannot be completely considered that credit in the back has been discarded, for Jack Nowell still features despite being unable to train fully since damaging ankle ligaments in the Premiership final and undergoing surgery in mid-June. If Nowell is fit he is a must-have in the squad, and England are clearly confident that he will be ready to go despite being expected to miss another few weeks at the very least.
So had Shields and Williams run out of credit? It’s unlikely, but the former’s foot injury combined with the uncertainty surrounding his right to a place in the first XV made it that little bit easier for Jones to drop him. Without Shields, Jones can deploy the Underhill-Curry tandem, where it then becomes necessary to pick on fitness rather than talent alone, allowing Ludlam to come from nowhere and pip Shields to the shirt.
There remains an underlying issue though. Sunday’s debutants were able to perform in the comfort of their home stadium in front of an 82,000-partisan crowd. When the chips are down in a must-win quarter-final, will they be able to cope with the pressure of cut-throat knockout rugby against the world’s best? The simple answer is we don’t know, because they have never faced this scenario before. And when it comes down to the crunch, Jones is putting a huge level of faith in the untried and untested.
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